“Sticks and stones will break your bones, but WORDS LAST FOREVER!”

“Sticks and stones will break your bones, but WORDS LAST FOREVER!”


By Sharon R. Bonds, PhD

Examining the effects of verbal abuse on self-esteem.

Verbal abuse is a form of abusive behavior involving the use of both verbal and

body language.  The language aspect differs from profanity in that it can occur

without the use of expletives, which are curse words. Most people think that verbal abuse manifest itself through the use of profanity and bad words, but body language can be abusive as well; an example would be stirring, eye rolling, hand gestures and funny looks.  “Yes,” in my opinion body language can be abusive especially when it’s being displayed along with the abrasive language.  To put it simply, verbal abuse can be defined as the use of words to cause pain in the victim’s life that can be accompanied with or without body language.  Verbal abuse is the act of using words to tear apart the soul intentionally even if the perpetrator is attempting to evoke change in the victim there is no excuse for verbal abuse. Verbal abuse generally involves the following types of abusive behavior:

  • Referring to the opinions of others as irrelevant and wrong.
  • Inconsideration of a person’s feelings.
  • Using verbal abuse jokingly.
  • Refusing to listen to others.
  • Using accusations and blame to manipulate and control others.
  • Being judgmental and critical of others.
  • Belittling the concerns of others.
  • Consistently berating a person’s confidence.
  • Threats to do physical harm.
  • Name-calling.
  • Purposeful cancellation of appointments or agreements.
  • Making difficult or impossible demands on others.
  • Denial of perpetrating the abuse.
  • Causing fear in people through outbursts of rage.
  • Simply yelling.
  • A subtle funny look, stirring or rolling eyes.

Verbal abuse is a kind of emotional battering that leaves permanent scars.  Whether the perpetrator of the abuse intends to inflict emotional harm or not, the damage is done if the recipient perceives’ it to be hurtful thus causing the individual pain.  That perceived pain is more damaging than most forms of physical abuse.  With physical abuse you can see the evidence on the victim’s body but with verbal abuse the physical evidence is generally displayed through various types of destructive behaviors that the victim displays in an attempt to hide or overcompensate for their pain.  Verbal abuse is often invisible because the acts of abuse occur in private as the victims’ life is generally private.  Unless control is lost through attempts to mask or hide the negative impact that the abuse has on the victim or perpetrator the results will be displayed  in the misuse of drug, alcohol, sexual promiscuity, gambling, mental illness, stress, etc.  The victim of abuse must avoid depression and realize that sometimes words are used harshly by people without realizing how hurtful words are perceived by the victim. A daily barrage of hurtful words leads to depression, which is very common in an abusive situation.  Avoiding depression can be accomplished when steps are taken to dispel it.  Inactivity of one’s situation breeds depression. Some active steps that the victim can take to counteract the effects of depression are as follows:

  1. Never hold yourself responsible for the abuse it’s not your fault. There’s no justification for abuse.
  2. Make an attempt to discuss the unacceptable behavior with the abuser. Let the abuser know how devastating the harsh words hurt.
  3. Discuss ways to change and improve the relationship.
  4. Seek counseling: whether it is together, separately, or individually.
  5. Surround yourself with a support system of friends, family, church group, etc.
  6. If the verbal abuse becomes physical, personal safety is imperative. Leave the volatile situation and allow time for cooling down. Physical abuse is totally unacceptable.
  7. Never make excuses for the abuse because of an existing problem such as the lack of money, loss of employment, death in the family, etc. Stop blaming yourself for existing problems and be real about your situation.

At the moment of being verbally abused, remember to:

  • Stay calm. Do not become agitated.
  • Let the abuser vent. The perpetrator will lose steam and generally realize that the victim will eventually refuse to accept their abuse.
  • Do not reward the abuser by reacting to their actions with hurtful responses. Lashing out lets the abuser know that they have power in affecting the victim’s emotions.
  • Don’t respond!

Now, verbal abuse can manifest itself through nervous break downs, mental illness,

stokes, heart attacks, over eating, excessive compulsions, drug abuse, gender disorder,

homosexuality, sexual promiscuity, as well as other physical aliment and it can acerbate or accelerate a pre-existing medical and or emotional condition.  Verbal abuse is dangerous for the victim and the perpetrator.  Some additional major concerns of verbal abuse :

  • It creates a pretend world of control
  • It ostracizes its victims and isolates them
  • It denigrates and diminishes human beings
  • It invades the victim’s inner world and self-definition resulting in diminished self-esteem
  • Most verbal abuse is done in secret and by the time its exposed serious damage has been done emotionally, mentally and medically.
  • Some victims believe that verbal abuse is normal if they experienced it from an early age.
  • Verbal abuse coerces some victims into protecting perpetrators.
  • It’s a learned behavior characteristic and can be passed on from generation to generation.

When an individual has been the victim of verbal abuse that generally has a devastating effect on their self-esteem and the individual generally looks to a spouse, drugs, alcohol, sex, material things, etc. to fulfill them.  The perpetrator also looks to religion to justify their behavior which ultimately impacts negatively because of the feelings of guilty or feeling of not being abusive enough to evoke change in the victim, thus lowering the individual’s self-esteem even more.

Self-esteem is the true sense you have of your intrinsic value that’s derived from your perceptions, both conscious and unconscious of your values to others.  It can be further defined as the trust you have in your ability to perform behaviors and achieve goals that’s considered to be important.

To put it simply, self-esteem is liking you unconditionally, as you are no matter what your dress size or physical ailment consist of.

The perpetrator of verbal abuse is generally someone that’s close to the victim like a

parent, spouse, sibling, family member, friend, co-worker or neighbor. Parents are the first one’s to give their kids self-esteem and the first one’s to take it back by name-calling, and demeaning responses but then they wander why the child has difficulties in making sound decisions or issues with drugs, alcohol, sexual promiscuity, transgender disorder, mental illness, stressed out, confused and difficulties with selecting a suitable mate.  Parents are more likely than not the etiology of the child’s problems and the bane of their existence.

Note that verbal abuse has its own set of characteristics and some are listed as follows:

  • The verbal is being utilized as a means of control.
  • The verbal abuse is painful and the primary focus of the attack is related to the victims’ nature and abilities or the lack thereof.
  • The victim blames them self for the existing problems and began to behave or mimic the perpetrator or the victim starts believing that something is wrong with them mentally, physically, emotionally or intellectually rather than the perpetrator.
  • The verbal abuse is generally overt (through angry outbursts, sarcastic remarks and name- calling) or covert (involving very subtle comments, even something that approaches brainwashing). Overt verbal abuse is usually blaming and accusatory, and consequently confusing the victim. Covert verbal abuse, which is hidden aggression, is even more confusing to the victim. Its aim is to control the individual without them realizing it.
  • Verbal abuse is a form of manipulation that the underling factor of control.  Even disparaging comments can be voiced in an extremely sincere and concerned way but the goal of the abuser is to control and manipulate.
  • Verbal abuse is insidious. The victims’ self-esteem gradually diminishes, usually without them realizing it. The victim will consciously or unconsciously attempt to change there behavior so as not to upset the abuser and began living according to the perpetrators’ specifications.
  • Verbal abuse is unpredictable. In fact, unpredictability is one of the most significant characteristics of verbal abuse. The victim is stunned, devastated shocked, and thrown off balance by the perpetrators’ sarcasm, angry jab, put-down, criticism, negativity or hurtful comment.
  • Verbal abuse is not a side issue if it exists in any type of relationship you are involved in. The issue is the abuse and if this issue is not resolved it can escalate into a serious problem.
  • Verbal abuse expresses a double message. There is incongruence between the way the abuser speaks and there real feelings.
  • Verbal abuse usually escalates, increasing in intensity, frequency, and is the gateway to physical abuse.
  • Verbal abuse may begin with put-downs disguised as jokes and end in violence.

Seek professional help if you’ve identified yourself as the victim or the perpetrator while reading this article.

By Dr. Sharon R. Bonds, PhD.

This article is copyrighted.

Copyright © The Library of Congress 2008

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